My Shabbat dinner at Chabad a night of wine, rebbe and festive Chassidic song

We knocked on the door and it opened, but no one was there. It was as if it opened all by itself. Then, slowly, we looked down, way down, at the raven-haired, giggling boy wearing a tiny No. 3 football jersey and an adult-size yarmulke that blanketed his entire scalp.

"Hello," I said, squatting down to the little football player's eye level. "What's your name?"

"Shaaaaaaalom," he replied with his ubiquitous smile, drawing the word out for about three or four seconds.

"Well, I'm Joe and this is Grace, my girlfriend," I continued.

The little boy giggled for about a nanosecond and then asked, "So, why don't you two get married?"

Shalom Ferris, who had taken a break from his Steve Young imitation in stocking feet upon hardwood floors, was the official Shabbat greeter at the Ferris household. His father, Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, was, at that moment, leading his congregants on the walk back from services at the Berkeley Chabad House, and his mother, Miriam, was at a Chabad women's convention in Crown Heights, N.Y.

The Ferris clan has been hosting Shabbat dinners for fellow rabbis, students, friends, professors and even random joggers invited in off the street for decades now. This was to be a fairly small gathering. Only 18 dinner guests. On even minor Jewish holidays so many people show up that card tables are dragged out of closets and set up in the halls, kitchen and front room.

Ferris burst through the front door with his congregants, who were immediately greeted by their children, who had been bouncing off the walls like electrons in a particle accelerator. The kitchen was soon abuzz with young boys and girls continuing a tag game, bobbing and weaving between black-coated, yarmulke-wearing men and their wives, who had helped to prepare the evening's feast in Miriam Ferris' absence.

The rabbi greeted us warmly — I've been interviewing him for at least five years, and he has not once failed to conclude a conversation — in his distinctive, deep, Chicago-accented voice — with an invitation to a Shabbat dinner.

Since this is a Chabad function, guests are well-versed in helping less-religious Jews — or perhaps even non-Jews — to understand and participate in the rituals of Shabbat.

"People bring non-Jews all the time. I think it's a win-win," said the rabbi.

"It's such a peaceful atmosphere. When does a family sit down? This is an age of microwave and TV dinners. At least for a brief moment, everyone is together. It can be shared by everybody; it's not exclusive to the Jewish people."

Ferris' 12-year-old son, Leibl, instructed me on how to properly wash my hands (one, two, three pours from the pitcher on each hand while saying a prayer).

Since I couldn't tell you what prayer to say, the rabbi slowly helped me through it. When I'd finished he laughed and said, "Congratulations! In Hebrew you just told me you'll give me $500!"

Afterward, another guest kindly whispered in my ear that we were not to talk until the rabbi said the motzi, the blessing over bread.

Like those on jury duty or BART, the guests sitting around the table at the Ferris' Shabbat dinner might not have rubbed elbows any other way. On this night, guests included a U.C. Berkeley professor, several teachers, a rabbi Band an Israeli matchmaker named Zvi Pila who recently immigrated here.

At least one couple who met over matzah ball soup at the Ferris house has gone on to get married.

As an ice breaker, the rabbi had his many guests introduce themselves and tell a funny story. Several told of the times when the Lubavitcher rebbe gave them their Jewish names ("So did he give you a dollar?" "You bet!" "Did you spend it?" "No way!").

One man with a rabbinical-looking beard and black hat recalled the unlikely story of the time he rented a fire-apple red convertible and drove to Lake Tahoe with Steve McQueen-type velocity. At one point, he passed a woman on a motorcycle and waved and honked. Later, he saw her at the side of the road — "How did she get by me?" he wondered.

So, while roaring by at about 100 mph, he honked and waved again. At a female cop. She clicked on the lights and the siren and proceeded to chase down somebody driving even faster. So, divinely aided or not, he got lucky that day.

At this point, the gastronomic portion of the evening commenced, as food began hitting the table. Ferris and company hadn't just prepared enough food for 18; they made enough for 18 Dom DeLuises.

We started with a spicy Mediterranean salad served out of a bowl that looked like a prop from "The Incredible Shrinking Woman." After that was gefilte fish, more vegetable dishes and two loaves of amazing challah, each of which was, incidentally, larger than a breadbox.

At this point, Grace thought we were done. But we only had a huge bowl of soup, a kugel and the roast chicken main course to go.

The same kind of good-natured assistance exemplified by whispering that we could not talk was continued throughout the night by my more religious table-mates. I was given a helpful nudge whenever I fell a page or more behind in the Hebrew texts. The significance of every prayer or custom was whispered into my ear.

After dinner, guests told stories about their lives. Zvi the matchmaker reminisced about the time he set up a deaf woman with a man who stuttered. At a recent dinner, according to the rabbi, one guest told a harrowing tale of drug smugglers spiriting him across the desert and out of Iran.

The rabbi possesses a standup comedian's wit and a hoarse, low, somewhat monotone voice reminiscent of Steven Wright, and he dropped jokes and one-liners throughout the night. At one point, he recalled the story of the Texan and the Israeli.

"I get up in the morning and drive and drive and drive all day and still I don't reach the end of my property," boasted the Texan.

"I had a car like that once," quipped the Israeli.

"Don't go to bars," Ferris later noted. "Go to a bar mitzvah."

Then it was time for Chassidic singing. The songs — all about three lines long and generously padded out by the characteristic choruses of "Had-ya-ya" and "Hai-yai-yai" — were numbered from one to nearly 200, and Ferris had them all memorized, as did his son Leibl. At 12, Leibl's voice hasn't matured into his father's brilliant baritone, but he has time yet.

As a nightcap, one of Ferris' guests removed a 375-milliliter bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whisky from a velvet bag. Hearty shots were quaffed around the table, and suddenly everyone was singing a lot louder. Shabbat-observant diners — i.e., those who weren't driving — felt liberated to tipple a little more.

Finally, with 11 p.m. approaching and the rabbi upstairs tucking in several of his younger children, we bid our adieus.

When I reached Zvi the matchmaker, he smiled and thanked me for coming. Holding onto my hand, he asked me a question.

"So, why don't you two get married?"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.